From a very young age, Jane Yolen had a passion for writing. Her early pursuits as a poet launched her into a successful career as a writer of children’s and adult books. Many of her books have received notable book awards and she has received honorary degrees from multiple institutions. Jane’s work can be found in almost every genre imaginable. Few authors can boast that they have published 387 books. Within the next few months, that number is likely to increase.
Today, I am truly honored to welcome Jane Yolen to my website. Decades ago, I was fortunate to read a few of her books when my sons were in public school. While pursuing my MA in education at the University of Colorado-Boulder, my literacy professors frequently used Yolen’s books in their presentations. Most recently, I reviewed Miriam at the River in my blog about 2020 Passover books. If you’d like to know more about Yolen as well as some of her books, I encourage you to keep reading.
In the bio section of your website, you shared an incredible amount of background information. Your immense passion for writing began in your youth. I cannot recall ever reading about a brother and sister team who interviewed neighbors and sold the carbon paper copies to their neighbors. I’m impressed that your mother was willing to help out. Typing on a manual typewriter is a bit more tedious than using a modern computer with a printer. Can you recall what inspired your early interest in writing?
MY FATHER WAS A JOURNALIST. MY MOTHER WROTE SHORT STORIES AND CREATED ORIGINAL CROSSWORD PUZZLES AND ACROSTICS. ALL OF THEIR FRIENDS SEEMED TO BE PUBLISHED AUTHORS. MY CHILDISH THOUGHT WAS THAT ALL GROWNUPS ARE WRITERS EVEN THOUGH THEY HAVE DAY JOBS LIKE TEACHERS, MILKMEN, POLICE, BUS DRIVERS, TAXI DRIVERS, BUTCHERS, CROSSING GUARDS. AS A CHILD, WE LIVED IN NEW YORK CITY. ONLY LATER DID I REALIZE THAT THIS WASN’T TRUE. BY THEN I WAS HOOKED!
While attending Smith College, you refined your poetry skills and became the recipient of numerous poetry awards. How do your poetic abilities help you as a writer?
ALL WRITING BEGINS WITH POETRY. THAT IS WHERE YOU LEARN TO REFINE ON THE SMALL SCALE. IT IS WHERE YOU FIND OUT THAT EACH WORD COUNTS, WHERE YOU LEARN TO WRITE LYRICALLY, UNDERSTAND TEMPO, THE VALUE OF LINE BREAKS, AND THE ENORMITY OF PHRASE.
After being a poet, journalist, and non-fiction writer, you chose to write your first children’s book in your early 20s. What prompted you to enter this genre?
IT WAS AN ACCIDENT. I WAS INVITED BY AN EDITOR TO SEND HER SOMETHING AND I HAD NOTHING. I THOUGHT WRITING CHILDREN’S BOOKS WOULD BE SHORT ENOUGH TO GET SEVERAL DONE QUICKLY. I WAS WRONG. I LEARNED THIS AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF REJECTIONS. BUT THE FIRST TWO BOOKS I MANAGED TO SELL WERE FOR CHILDREN WHICH QUITE LITERALLY CHANGED MY LIFE.
From your website and a quick peek at what is available on Amazon, I can see that you have published board books, easy readers, picture books, fairy tales, fantasy, graphic novels, middle-grade books, poetry, non-fiction, science fiction, as well as books in many adult genres. With so many wonderful titles covering a wide range of content, can you identify your favorite niche and describe why one or more areas stand out from the rest?
POETRY, PICTURE BOOKS, SHORT STORIES, SONGS– THE SHORT PIECE IS MY SWEET SPOT. THOUGH I HAVE WRITTEN OVER 60 NOVELS SO IT IS PRETTY DIFFICULT TO SUSTAIN THAT CLAIM.
Your background knowledge is impressive. Few people have such a plentiful portfolio of published works. What steps do you take to narrow your focus when creating a book?
I HAVE A VERY LOW THRESHOLD OF BOREDOM SO OFTEN START SOMETHING NEW IN THE MIDDLE OF WRITING SOMETHING ELSE.
Most writers have no choice but to cope with rejections. With 387 published books to your credit, you obviously persevered. Can you offer any words of advice to people who are at a stage of their writing career when rejections are more plentiful than acceptances?
I HAD 113 REJECTIONS OF MY POETRY DURING MY LATE COLLEGE YEARS AND BEFORE MY FIRST POETRY SALES. I TAPED THE REJECTIONS TO MY BEDROOM WALL. I SOLD TWO POEMS (FOR ACTUAL MONEY!) TO THE CHICAGO JEWISH FORUM. THEN, I RIPPED DOWN ALL OF THOSE REJECTION SLIPS AND NEVER LOOKED BACK. NOW I CONSIDER A REJECTION (AND I STILL GET A LOT OF THEM) AN INVITATION TO MOVE ON.
Over thirty years ago, I became acquainted with your writing when one of my sons was reading The Devil’s Arithmetic. Up until that point in time, you had yet to write stories including Jewish content. What prompted you to write this story? Did writing about the Holocaust change your perspective? Did the writing of the book instill interest in other Jewish topics or further exploration of the Holocaust?
I HAD WRITTEN POEMS ABOUT BEING JEWISH– BUT NOT STORIES. MOSTLY BECAUSE I CAME FROM A FAMILY THAT WAS JEWISH IN BACKGROUND BUT NOT IN FOREGROUND— CULTURALLY JEWISH, JEWISH BY HERITAGE. WHEN I WAS 13, THERE WERE NO BAT MITZVAHS. I BEGGED TO GO TO A LOCAL CONFIRMATION CLASS WHICH ANNOYED MY PARENTS BECAUSE THAT MEANT THEY HAD TO JOIN THE SHUL. I GOT TO BE THE FIRST GIRL IN THAT CONGREGATION EVER TO READ OUT OF THE TORAH AND HEAD THE JEWISH YOUTH GROUP. I MINORED IN RELIGION AT SMITH COLLEGE. BUT IT TOOK AN EDITOR WHO WAS A RABBI’S WIFE–DEBORAH BRODIE–TO CONVINCE ME TO WRITE THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC.
On your website, you draw attention to your writing group. When did you first start working with a writing group? Has the group changed over time? How does the group influence or support your writing?
ABOUT 50 YEARS AGO. WE ARE SEVEN NOW AND YES, THEY INFLUENCE ME A LOT. WE MEET ONCE A WEEK AND READ THINGS ALOUD. ALL OF US ARE WOMEN WRITERS AND WELL PUBLISHED.
As an instructor of numerous writing workshops, can you offer five helpful tips for people who are striving to write their first children’s book?
- READ IN YOUR PREFERRED FIELDS, KNOW BOTH THE CLASSICS AND THE LATEST BOOKS.
- JOIN SCBWI
- TAKE A CLASS IN WRITING IN YOUR PREFERRED FIELD. (CHECK OUT SCBWI, HIGHLIGHTS, ETC.)
- UNDERSTAND THAT REJECTION IS PART OF THE PROCESS.
- PUT YOUR BUTT IN A CHAIR. AS MY MUSE LIKES TO TELL ME: “IT ISN’T GOING TO WRITE ITSELF, YOU KNOW!”
While creating picture books, have you ever encountered a situation where the illustrations did not match up with your expectations?
YES, THREE TIMES. (UNDERSTAND, I HAVE JUST HAD MY 387TH BOOK OUT, SO THAT’S NOT BAD.)
The illustrations in your latest book, Miriam at the River, match the text perfectly. Did you communicate with Khoa Le or did she create the visuals independently?
THE EDITOR SENT ME SKETCHES AND FINISHES. AT THAT POINT I HAD INPUT, BUT NOT DIRECTLY WITH THE ARTIST.
Is the current situation with the COVID-19 virus affecting your writing? Do you anticipate using today’s current events in any of your future books?
IT’S GIVING ME EVEN MORE TIME TO WRITE. I HAVE WRITTEN POEMS ABOUT THE VIRUS AND ITS EFFECTS BUT NO BOOKS.
In the coming year, are you anticipating the publication of any books?
SOME EASY READERS IN THE SCHOOL OF FISH SERIES, THE FIRST TWO BOOKS IN AN EASY READER SERIES CALLED THE INTERRUPTING COW, A PICTURE BOOK IN AN ON-GOING SERIES FOR CORNELL’S LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY CALLED ON EAGLE COVE, A PICTURE BOOK WITH MY DAUGHTER, HEIDI STEMPLE, CALLED I AM THE STORM.
Prior to posting this blog, Kar-Ben Publishing sent a complimentary copy of Miriam at the River.
Let me introduce you to a few children’s authors:
Sandra Bornstein is the author of May This Be the Best Year of Your Life. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She was a licensed Colorado teacher who taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college-level courses. In addition to reviewing books and interviewing authors, Sandra is a freelance lifestyle and travel writer. Many of Sandra’s stories appear on the For Readers page. Additional stories can be read on TheTravelingBornsteins website.